A Wee Bit o’ Irish Soda Bread

So, a few days ago, alert blog follower and old friend Jeff Jaquish sent me a PM asking about a good Irish Soda Bread recipe. I was at work at the time, so I dove into my online files, found the first one titled Irish Soda Bread, and sent that off to him, and I posted it here, too.

Then, this morning, with something nagging at my noggin, I dove back into my recipes and found much more thoughts and details in a second, unpublished file. I’ve got ahead and combined those here.

The first recipe is my version with far more in it, frankly, than a truly classic recipe for this stuff, so I wanted to include a good base model too. Somehow, I’d completely forgotten about baking to a higher temp in a Dutch oven, and that’s a crime – I’ve corrected that here, so JJ, here ya go again.

Irish Soda Bread, a Simple slice of heaven.
Irish Soda Bread, a Simple slice of heaven.

Back in the early 1800s, Ireland was poor as poor can be, so stretching food wisely was a necessity. Soda bread, comprised of flour, buttermilk, baking soda, and salt, was perfect answer to the problem, especially when the potato famine hit, mid-Century. And by the way, yes, for genuine, old school Soda Bread, that’s all that needs to be in there – Raisins, nuts, sweeteners, and whatnot are purely American affectations, truth be told.

Early commercial bakers discovered that bicarbonate of soda, (AKA baking soda), when mixed with hydrochloride acid, (Yes, Virginia, they really did that…), made for prodigious production of carbon dioxide – Lo and behold, they got bread much faster than they did by waiting around for yeast, (which wasn’t all that great back then), to do its thing.

Fortunately, home bakers were far more sensible, and got their acid from buttermilk – Much more benign, much less dangerous, and tastier to boot.

Those early cottage bakers, (AKA, Mom), would bake soda bread in a covered dish or skillet, a local version of a Dutch oven. They’d snuggle that dish right into the hearth, with some coals on top and some beneath, just as we do when camping these days. The results were and are a truly delightful bread, and it’s super easy to make.

As with all things house made, ingredient quality and freshness count a lot. You’ll want the freshest All Purpose Flour you can find, and yes, It needs to be AP Flour – the relatively low protein content therein means gluten formation remains relatively low, and that yields a nice, chewy bread that won’t get too tough. Likewise. Check your baking powder before you start – As we’ve discussed here before, that stuff does have an expiration date, so make sure you’re working with fresh powder. Finally, get your buttermilk as fresh and local as you can.

Now, for process, consider and abide by the following – This is a recipe you want to finish mixing and get straight into a hot oven. Unlike yeast, baking soda does its thing in a rapid and fairly short lived manner – Think about mixing Coca Cola and Mentos, and you get the idea. As soon as you pour in that buttermilk, the second hand on the ol’ stopwatch is in motion.

Finally, you’ll see a lot of advice on kneading Soda Bread. I initially advocated around a 3 minute knead, and that’s OK, believe me, but there is wide variance available to you, depending on what you like.

If you prefer things a bit more rustic, you can add enough additional buttermilk such that you’ll end up with a dough that is too sticky to knead, but too stiff to pour – that’ll be perfect – Put that in your Dutch oven and let ‘er rip. If you like a thinner, crunchier crust and a bit smoother crumb, keep the buttermilk percentage as shown and knead for a few minutes.

What I love about this stuff is the fact that it has a crumb and texture that, to me, is quite reminiscent of good sourdough. The beauty is that you can have this out of the oven and ready to eat in under an hour, all told, while good sourdough is dang near an all day adventure.

Give them both a try and let me know what you think. The sheet pan, lower temp version derives, for my mind anyway, a bit of a chewier crust, because it doesn’t take advantage of the steam factor baking in a Dutch oven will impart.

Urban’s Irish Soda Bread

4 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 ¼ Cups Buttermilk
½ Cup Avocado Oil
¼ Cup Unsalted Butter
1 large Egg
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar, (Honey is fine as a sub)
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
½ teaspoon Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 350° F and place a rack in the middle position. Make sure your oven is all the way to temp by the time your ready to slide the dough in there.

In a large, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients and blend thoroughly.

Add avocado oil, 1 cup of buttermilk, agave or honey, and the egg to the dry mix. Combine thoroughly with a kitchen spoon.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for up to 2-3 minutes. You can stop when everything is well incorporated, or go on if you like things a bit more refined.

Form the dough into a round, and place it on a baking sheet – A silicone sheet covering the metal is never a bad idea.

In a sauce pan over medium low heat, melt the butter.

In a small non-reactive mixing bowl, combine melted butter and remaining ¼ cup of buttermilk. Use a pastry brush to coat the outside of the loaf with this mixture.

Bake at 375 for 30 minutes, then test the loaf with a toothpick stuck into the middle – Its should draw out cleanly. Depending on your oven, you may need to bake for as long as 45 minutes, but make sure you test at 30 minutes, and then every 5 minutes thereafter.

Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. Allow to cool completely before cutting, (30 to 60 minutes).

NOTE: This recipe works great in a Dutch oven at 450° F for 40-45 minutes, too!

Classic Irish Soda Bread

3 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 – 2 1/2Cups fresh Buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher Salt
1 1/8 teaspoon Baking Soda

Preheat oven to 450° F and set a rack in the middle slot. Make sure your oven is fully up to heat before you slide the bread in to bake!

To help avoid sticking, line the bottom of a Dutch oven with parchment paper. We use a 10” oven, by the way, so that’s what this recipe is scaled for. Do the parchment thing even if your oven is well seasoned, because this stuff will stick.

In a large, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients and whisk to incorporate fully.

Add the buttermilk and use a spatula to incorporate. When the dough just comes together, you can stop mixing if you like. Again, you can add more buttermilk here to get that too sticky to handle, but too hefty to pour consistency if needed. If you like your crust a bit thinner, continue to mix for another minute or so.

Use the spatula to transfer the dough to your lined Dutch oven, and then to form a basic round loaf shape. Use a sharp paring knife to score the top of the loaf – You can do quarters, or straight lines, whatever you like.

Bake covered for 45 minutes, then remove from oven and carefully transfer the loaf to a wire rack to cool.

Allow the bread to cool thoroughly before you cut it – It’ll need that time, believe me – Anywhere from a half hour to an hour or more.

Cornbread, Old & New

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Recipes aren’t really meant to be repeated exactly, time and time again – Even when you’re the one who wrote them. They’re a springboard to further exploration, and nothing more. A guitar making parable comes to mind – I’ve seen a bunch of builders, including me, make ‘identical’ guitars, from the same wood, built to the same specs, as close to each other as we can make them, and ya know what? They never sound, feel, or play the same. Same goes for recipes and cooking – For something iconic like cornbread, for instance.

Let us pause to consider from whence this stuff came. Cornbread is largely seen as a southern culinary thing, but its roots go far beyond those boundaries. Our modern versions harken back in the 1600’s, when European interlopers adapted some bread making techniques to the new cereal the natives had introduced them to, (and had been cultivating, starting down in Mexico, for something around 10,000 years).

Nowadays there are regional variances in style, and it’s interesting that those are almost diametrically opposed to what we see with biscuits – The farther south you go, the cornbread gets more rustic and less cakey, often with little or no added sugar and very little flour, (in fact, sometimes none at all). Meanwhile, while up north and out west, while not exactly flaky, you find a sweeter, more floury version. White cornmeal, closely akin to masa, is more popular in the south, yellow up north. Those southern differences may have to do with the prevalence of Mexican regional cooking, and the proximity to the origin point of the cereal itself, while up north, European influences speak loudest. That jibes with my personal experience as well – Growing up in Massachusetts, I remember cornbread as overly sweet and therefore, not much to my liking. When M and I moved to Texas, I found what I was looking for – Something that’s a bit more savory, and highlights the natural sweetness of corn without adding sugar or other sweeteners to the mix.

In any event, cornbread isn’t something we make super often, so when we do, it can fairly be considered a treat. In that light, one should consider what it is you most want out of the stuff. For me, that means as moist as I can get it, while still being firm and grainy with genuine cornmeal flavor.

For a good few years now, I’d landed on a cheddar version that we like a lot. I’ve taken to soaking the corn meal in milk or cream as a critical step, and in fact, doing that does make notably moister bread. Grinding my own cornmeal fresh, from local, organic corn was even better.

Then, as fate would have it, a measuring malfunction lead to a new twist, or at least, new to me – I’d put too much cornmeal in the mix. Once I realized it, I balanced everything back out, but found I was out of the heavy cream I’d used for the dairy, so I thought – what the hell, why not throw in some sour cream?

The second part of this tiny epiphany had to do with the chosen fat for the batch. I’ve used, and advocated here, leaf lard and/or butter, but all of a sudden, I thought about biscuits, and realized that what has really made my current version sing is avocado oil. If you haven’t tried that yet, it’s not really avocado-y in taste at all, just very subtle and buttery – Perfect for cornbread. Since I’d putzed around so long, I didn’t bother with the dairy rest for the cornmeal, (and it turns out that, with this version, I didn’t need it.) And as fate would have it, what resulted was what M happily anointed as ‘far and away, the best cornbread you’ve every made’ – High praise, that, believe you me.

So I made a second batch, to make sure the recipe worked, then made one the old way, for comparison. What that does is give y’all a couple of options. In the picture below, the old recipe is the batch to the left, the new one to the right. First off, I assure you, both are fully cooked, and neither has had anything done to it other than being sliced. You can see how dense, moist, and almost muffinish the new recipe is, while the old one is lighter and airier. I like them both a lot, but M was right – The new stuff is heavenly.

Old style to the left, New to the right
Old style to the left, New to the right

Urban’s Old Standby Cheddar Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Corn Meal, (yellow or white)
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup grated Sharp Cheddar Cheese
1 Cup Whole Milk
4 Tablespoons Leaf Lard (or Unsalted Butter)
1 Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Optional: 1-2 seeded and cored Jalapeño chiles

Preheat oven to 400° F

Pour cornmeal into a bowl and add the milk; mix well and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

Mix remaining dry ingredients, (Including the cheese), in a large bowl.

Melt shortening, then combine all ingredients and mix by hand to a nice, even batter consistency.

Place the pan(s) you’ll do the bread in into a 400 F oven, with a small dot of shortening in each pan, (Or a tablespoon full if using a single pan).

When the shortening is melted and sizzling, remove the pan, pour in the batter and return to the oven.

Bake at 400° F for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made
What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made

Urban’s New Deal Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Cornmeal
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Heavy Cream
1/2 Cup Sour Cream
1/2 Cup shredded Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
4 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 large Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 400° F and set a rack in the middle position, with the pan your going to bake in thereupon.

Combine all dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Add the cheese, egg, dairy, and oil, and whisk into a uniform batter.

Carefully remove the hot baking pan and rub a little avocado oil around the inside, without burning yourself.

Pour the batter into the baking pan and return it to the hot oven.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown.

It’s Time To Fix Home Kitchen Food Waste

As much as we love Thanksgiving, there’s a problem there, one that we’ve tried to address as an enduring theme here – managing and avoiding food waste. Huge amounts of it, and frankly, it’s not just the holidays. It’s every day, in our home kitchens. Massive waste. It’s time to address that.

Consider this shocker, courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Over this Thanksgiving week, Americans will throw out almost 200 million pounds of turkey alone.” That’s one weekend, gang. They go on to state that, “The average household of four is wasting about $1,800 annually on food that they buy and then never wind up eating.” And there’s more – “A recent survey in three U.S. cities found that the average American tosses out 2.5 pounds of perfectly edible food each week. At the top of the list: produce and leftovers.” And the coup de grace, “Households are actually the biggest contributor to the amount of food going to waste across the country — more than grocery stores or restaurants or any other sector.” All that food is the primary thing sent to dumps and landfills in this county, and that leads directly to the production of a hell of a lot of methane as all that stuff decomposes. Methane is a serious greenhouse gas – Not good in a world that’s rapidly heating up.

Now if you doubt those household waste figures, let me share something with you – As the General Manager of a cafe that does well north of 4 million bucks in sales annually, I have a few real concerns to deal with – I need to keep my folks happy, my guests safe and happy, and make money for my company. That’s it, in a nutshell. Do those things, and everything else will fall in place. Now, we certainly have waste, but let me put it into perspective for you – Our waste, our total waste, from a full time bakery and a kitchen putting out those kind of numbers, is around 3%. That’s roughly 1.5% from both sides, café and bakery. Now, compare that to the figures from the NRDC above and tell me – Do y’all think you’re anywhere near that efficient? The answer is a resounding NO – Not even close. That’s what we need to fix, because friends and neighbors? Your concerns are not any different than mine are, truth be told – You have to keep your crew happy, safe, and fed, and you cannot afford to waste the kind of money those figures up there reflect – None of us can.

There’s your post holiday bummer for you. So, as I always like to ask when somebody brings me gratuitous doom and gloom – What are we gonna do about it? Well, again, what we’re going to do is go back to talking about planning, and about thorough use of the food we buy. Why? Because we must, without fail.

That concept I mentioned, thorough use of what we buy, starts with shopping. So let me ask – When you shop, you make a list, right? If not, (and I know there are some of you who just wing it, so stop fibbing), you’ve got to start planning, carefully, if you’re going to avoid the kind of food waste we’re guilty of here. That means going through your pantry, cupboards, freezer, and fridge, and seeing what you’ve got and what you might need.

The idea here is to change a critical aspect of the way most of us shop – Instead of thinking about what might be fun or nice to buy, we need to look at what’s already in your kitchen with a couple of perspectives – First, what do I already got that’d be great to cook with, and secondly, what do I got that needs to be dealt with right now – before it turns to waste?

When you do that, you find the things that are maybe on the verge of going bad, and you use them, convert them, make them into something you’ll cook with, rather than let them go to waste. Got tomatoes about to become long in the tooth? Put them in an airtight container and freeze them. You can make sauce, soup, or stew later, when you’re ready. In fact, any and every vegetable or fruit you’ve got that is ‘getting there’ should be treated this way – You don’t really think folks buy bananas intending to make banana bread, do you?

Case in point – M and I invented a Chicago Dog Pizza the other night, because, one – we wanted pizza, and two – We didn’t have any of the proteins we’d normally put on pizza, (No ham, pepperoni, mozzarella, etc) – What we did have was two very good locally made hot dogs that needed to get eaten, some sport peppers, and a couple tomatoes that needed to get used as well. I made some dough, and a sauce tinged with a little zing of yellow mustard and celery salt. We used cheddar cheese, and a little sweet onion, and it was actually fantastic – I’d go back to a place that makes that and order it again.

When I say ‘go through your freezer and fridge,’ I mean it! Touch everything there – EVERYTHING! We do this daily in restaurant work, and you should do it at least weekly at home – That’s the number one way to find stuff that needs to get used and get it in play before its too far gone, (And conversely, not doing so is the number one reason we waste so much food). I’ve seen a lot of fridges and freezers in my day, and many are downright terrifying. Don’t let yours get there – Police it regularly, and practice FIFO at home, (First In, First Out), combined with dating things in there, and you’ll be well on your way to running a tighter ship.

When you do make that list, think in much broader terms than one meal at a time. A chicken, one nice, fat fresh chicken, can easily make three meals – Roasted chicken, chicken tacos, chicken noodle soup. Turns that $15 bird into a much more efficient protein, doesn’t it? We talked pretty extensively about this in a couple of posts, one on Meal Planning, and one on Planning for Leftovers – Check those out.

And then, when you’re ready to go to the store, do yourselves a favor – Abide by the old adage, ‘Don’t shop hungry.’ Seriously – It’s why we shop on Sundays, our mutual day off, and go out to eat beforehand. Hungry shopping leads to binge shopping, and that’s bad for the wallet and the waste log. Stick to your list, and you’re good to go.

That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t snag something that looks great when you’re there – Just be judicious in that vein. The reason we waste so much produce is because its pretty, and stores do a great job of presenting it. That’s fine, and it’s stuff you should eat, but if you go getting all crazy in that department, thinking you’re going to use all this stuff before it spoils, nine times out of ten, you’re dead wrong – Pick a thing or two at most, and make sure you use it. If it floats your boat, add it to your list downstream. If it doesn’t, then move on.

A lot, and I mean a lot of folks snag stuff because they’ve heard of it, seen it on Iron Chef, or something along that line – The question is, do you know what Jicama tastes like? (It’s great, by the way – Sorry…) This being the 21st century, whip out the ol’ smart phone and do a quick research on what it is that’s got your attention. You may or may not like turnips, Chinese long beans, or star fruit, and a quick check can give you enough of a clue to make a more informed decision than, ‘it’s so pretty.’

Finally, when you get your booty home, think about waste when you start to cook. What we throw away day in and day out isn’t always waste – A lot of it is food we didn’t use. Those NRDC quotes came from a piece NPR did with Massimo Bottura, a Michelin starred Chef who shows us how to think differently about what we throw away. He even got some friends together, like Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse, and Ferran Adrià, to name just a few, and wrote a cookbook aimed at reducing household food waste. It’s a spiral-bound gem titled, Bread is Gold, and you want it in your culinary library. Check out the NPR piece here.

To get you started, here’s the best potato stock you’ll ever make. It’s a great thing to make, divide into portions, and whip out to make amazing sauce, soup, or stews with.

Potato Peel Stock

5 Cups Water
Peels only from 6-8 Potatoes
1 medium Sweet Onion
2 Carrots
1 stalk Celery
1 Bay Leaf
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Fresh Ground Pepper

Rinse and rough chop onion, carrots, and celery.

Throw everything into a stock pot over high heat until it begins to boil.

Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, and cook for 2 hours.

Remove from heat, run the stock through a colander and discard the veggies

Allow to cool to room temperature, then portion and freeze, or use right away.

Where the last of your turkey needs to be
Where the last of your turkey needs to be

And finally, for the record, Kevin Rosinbum, a talented photographer and cook I know wrote this yesterday afternoon, above a picture of a glorious pot of homemade soup. “If you toss out your holiday carcass, you’ve already lost.” Truer words were never written.

We had that turkey dinner of course, followed by two rounds of stunningly delicious sandwiches, (I think I like them best of all). After that, what was left of the meat got pared off the carcass, and that got thrown into the oven to roast, and then into the slow cooker – Just the carcass and the aromatics it had cooked in – covered with water and left to do its thing for 8 hours. The result, strained once, is the most unctuous, fragrant, amazing stock you could ever hope for. With carrots, celery, garlic, leftover potatoes, and the rest of the meat, it’s now a pot of our own glorious soup, simmering away as I type.

Why I Do This

I get asked a lot why I do this. I don’t get paid for it, I’ve staunchly refused to monetize the site, and I work hard at it week in and week out, and believe you me, each and every post takes a lot of time and effort, let alone the cost.

Well, lemme tell ya why – After the posts on brining turkey, and the one on sides and desserts, among with a whole bunch more very nice comments and reviews, I got these –

“Ahhh. The birds were excellent! The dry brined turkey won out the day. Better flavor and a better texture. We all raised a glass to you. I hope your day was good. Thank you.”

“The son in law pulled off a perfect brined turkey yesterday. His first! Thanks for that! You had a helping hand there.”

“I gotta be honest, I was dubious when I read the dry brine procedure, and even more so every time I’d look at it in the fridge over three long days – But Son? You weren’t blowin’ smoke! Best bird I’ve ever done, hands down.”

“The hubs loves to deep fry turkeys, but to be absolutely honest, I’ve never been that impressed, until now – That brine thing was night and day from the usual result – THANK YOU!!”

“That pumpkin flan was AMAZING, and it was pretty easy to make – Your directions even worked for this hopeless kitchen klutz – Thanks again.”

THAT is why I do this.

👍🏼❤️🙏🏼

Thanksgiving Sides & Sweets

I love Thanksgiving, and yeah, that’s because of the meal, and family, and warmth on what is often a cold, blustery day here in the Great Pacific Northwet. And I truly love turkey, so it’s weird that I have to remind myself to cook one more than once a year. Now, all that said, there’s a truth to that holiday repast that needs to be admitted and embraced – Thanksgiving dinners are really all about the sides and the desserts. Think about it – What would turkey be without spuds, stuffing, great veggies, cranberry sauce, and gravy? The answer is, boring to no end. So, last week we covered the bird, this week, it’s all about the other good stuff – Thanksgiving sides & sweets.

When it comes to deciding what to put on the table for the Big To Do, I feel strongly that the answer should be, all of it. Don’t allow yourself to be limited by what you like – This is a meal made for sharing, for enjoying favorite dishes, and trying new ones, so make sure you allow that to happen. Ready?

First off, spuds, of course, and since this is a meal designed for pulling out all the stops, why not offer two, or even three different versions? Here’s the drill for roasted root veggies, perfect mashed spuds, and incredibly decadent twice baked potatoes.

First off, something fairly healthy, given that such a perverse wish might conceivably pierce the patina of excess that defines thanksgiving dinner. A blend of roasted root veggies is, relatively speaking, just that, (especially when compared to the two recipes that follow). Check out your local market and see what’s there. You’ll certainly find carrots and spuds, and probably parsnips, turnips, beets, and rutabaga too – They’re all common winter root veggies.

Roasted Root Veggies
2-4 Red Potatoes, (more if they’re babies)
2 medium Carrots
2 Parsnips
1 Rutabaga
1 Beet
2-3 cloves Garlic
2-3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Grains of Paradise (Black Pepper is cool as a sub)

Rinse off, and trim ends from all veggies.

Cut root veggies into rough chunks about 1” in size – Equality makes for even cooking. Mince the garlic.

Put everything into a large mixing bowl, and toss to evenly coat the veggies with oil, salt, and grains of paradise.

Roast at 350° F for about an hour, until veggies are fork tender.

Serve hot.

Naturally, ya just gotta do mashed potatoes, too. Yes, ya gotta – it’s non-negotiable. For these, choose a high starch, non waxy spud like a Russet or Yukon. Doing so will give you dependably fluffy and smooth mashed spuds, (the waxy white or red varieties just never really get creamy, truth be told). The russets and Yukon’s are also more amenable to taking on necessary adjuncts, like butter and cream.

Perfect Mashed Potatoes
Plan on 1 Yukon or 1/2 Russet per person, plus a few more portions for seconds and leftovers.
1 Tablespoon of unsalted Butter per spud
About 1/2 Cup of Heavy Cream
Sea Salt and ground Black Pepper to taste

In a large stock pot over high heat, add plenty of water salted as you would for pasta, (should taste like sea water)

Add spuds and bring to a boil, then cover the pot, reduce temperature to maintain a low simmer, and cook until the spuds are fork tender, about 20-30 minutes.

Remove the pot from heat, drain all the water carefully, then return to the burner and gently agitate the spuds until they dry out.

Remove the pot from heat, and with a potato masher, process the spuds evenly, working around the pot until everything is evenly mashed.

Add butter and use a flat whisk to incorporate.

Add cream a little bit at a time and whisk in thoroughly, until you hit the consistently you like.

Add salt and pepper, whisk to incorporate, taste test, and adjust seasoning as needed. When they’re done right, the shouldn’t need anything else, except maybe gravy, of course.

Serve hot.

Twice Baked Potatoes
Russet Potatoes, 1/2 to 1 each depending on size and appetites; the rest of these ingredient amounts are based on a 4 large potato bake, so scale accordingly.
1/2 Cup heavy Cream
1/2 Cup Sour Cream
1 Cup Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
4 ounces unsalted Butter
2 strips thick cut Bacon
4 Green Onions
Sea Salt
Fresh ground Pepper
Avocado Oil
Dash of Tabasco

Preheat oven to 325° F

Rinse your spuds and pat dry with a clean towel.

Coat whole spuds with avocado oil by hand, place in a glass baking dish. Season the skins evenly with salt and pepper.

Slide the spuds into the oven and bake for about an hour, until the spuds are fork tender.

Fry bacon, dry on paper towels and fine dice.

Rinse, strip roots from green onions, and fine dice.

Grate cheddar cheese.

When the spuds are ready, pull them out of the oven and let them cool just long enough to handle with a clean towel, (in other words, still quite hot).

Reduce oven heat to 250° F.

Cut the spuds into lengthwise halves, then carefully scoop the guts into a mixing bowl, keeping the skins intact.

Add cream, sour cream, half the cheese, bacon, onions, and butter to spuds and blend thoroughly. Add salt, pepper, and Tabasco to taste.

Refill the skins with the spud mixture, top with the remaining cheese, then slide them back into the oven; bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes.

Serve hot.

Of course, stuffing is also a must. Try this recipe, redolent of herbs and citrus. It’s actually desirable to use bread that’s a couple days old, so buy ahead. Stuffing can be prepared a day ahead of service and chilled, covered. Bring the stuffing back up to room temperature before you bake.

Savory Sourdough Stuffing
1 large Sourdough loaf
1 large Sweet Onion
1 stalk Celery, with leaves
3 slices thick cut Pepper Bacon
2 large Eggs
1/2 Unsalted Butter
1 1/2 Cups low-sodium Chicken Stock
1 small Lemon
2 Tablespoons Lemon Thyme
2 teaspoons Savory
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Grains of Paradise

Preheat oven to 325° F

Cut bread into roughly 1/2″ cubes. Spread cubes on 2 baking sheets and bake until dry, about 15 minutes. Allow bread to cool on pans, then transfer to a large bowl. Crumble by hand and add the lemon thyme, savory, salt, and grains of paradise.

Rinse and dice onion and celery. Zest and juice lemon. Lightly beat eggs.

In a large saucepan over medium high heat, fry the bacon until crisp. Set that aside on paper towels to drain, and reduce heat to medium low. Add the butter to the bacon fat and melt thoroughly. Add onions and sauté, stirring steadily, until onions start to turn translucent, about 5 minutes. Add celery and continue to sauté, stirring occasionally, for another 5 minutes. Transfer all to the mixing bowl.

Crumble the bacon, then add it plus the eggs, stock, lemon juice and zest to the bowl and combine thoroughly.

Transfer stuffing to a lightly buttered, shallow baking dish, cover the dish with metal foil.

Bake, on a middle rack for 30 minutes; remove foil and continue baking until browned, about another 30 minutes.

Allow to rest for 10 minutes prior to serving nice and hot.

And then there’s more veggies, ‘Cause, well, ya gotta. To me, green beans are the perfect choice, and you can usually find decent ones even at this time of year. Make sure you gets good ones at the store – If they don’t snap crisply when bent, they’re not the ones for you.

1 Pound fresh Green Beans
3 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter
1 Small Shallot
1 small Lemon
Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste

Rinse and trim ends from Beans.

Trim and peel Shallot. Mince 1/4 Cup and set aside.

Zest lemon and cut in half.

Beans can be steamed or boiled. To me, steaming gives better flavor, fresher, if you will.

Prepare an ice water bath in mixing bowl.

Cook Beans for about 3 minutes, then remove from heat and plunge into the ice water bath.

When you’re about ready to serve, heat a sauté pan over medium heat, then add 1 Tablespoon butter.

Sauté shallots until they begin to turn translucent, about 2-3 minutes.

Add beans to pan, with the rest of the butter, toss to melt butter and evenly coat beans.

Allow beans to heat through and cook for 2-3 minutes until they’re firm but tender.

Remove pan from heat, then add lemon zest and juice from 1/2 lemon, and toss to incorporate.

Season with salt and pepper, taste test, adjust lemon, salt, and pepper as desired.

Serve hot.

Brussels sprouts, the red headed first cousin of cabbage, get bad press far more often than they should. They’re truly a lovely vegetable and a perfect side for the big feast. It’s a safe bet that overcooking and poor seasoning have far more to do with negative reviews than the veggie itself. Brussels sprouts contain glucosinolates, compounds that offer abundant health benefits, but have the unfortunate tendency to release sulfurous byproducts when they’re overcooked. Avoiding the all too common boiling of sprouts is your first line of defense against bad taste. Here’s a preparation with bright and earthy notes guaranteed to please.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Almonds & Apple Cider Reduction
Brussels Sprouts, about 6 per person; the ingredient measures here are scaled for 35 to 40 sprouts.
1 1/2 Cups Honeycrisp Apple Cider
1/2 Cup slivered Almonds
Extra Virgin Avocado Oil
2 small cloves Garlic
Unsalted Butter
Sea Salt
Fresh ground Black Pepper

Preheat oven to 375° F.

Remove sprouts from stem and soak in cold water for 10 minutes.

Inspect and trim any browned or yellowed leaves, and trim stems to about 1/4″. If your sprouts are large, you may halve them if you wish.

Mince garlic.

Place trimmed sprouts in a mixing bowl, and coat generously with olive oil. Add garlic and toss to incorporate. Add enough salt and pepper to lightly coat.

Roast sprouts in a middle rack for 35 to 40 minutes, turning once, until they’ve begun to brown.

While the sprouts are roasting, prepare the almonds and cider reduction.

In a sauté pan over medium heat, add the almonds and a tablespoon of unsalted butter. Sauté, stirring regularly, until the nuts and butter start to brown, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a sauté pan over medium heat, add the cider and bring to a simmer. Whisking steadily, simmer until the cider has reduced by roughly 50%. Add a tablespoon of butter and a very small pinch of sea salt. Whisk to incorporate, then remove from heat and set aside.

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and whisk briskly to incorporate. Allow the dressing to sit while the sprouts roast.

When the sprouts are done, allow them to cool for about 5 minutes. Combine sprouts, almonds, and reduction; toss to thoroughly coat the sprouts, serve warm.

If you love cranberries, or even if you don’t, try this citrus infused sauce for a refreshing change. I’ve been making it for decades, and it’s still requested.

Urban’s Legendary Cranberry Sauce
1 12-ounce bag fresh Cranberries
3/4 Cup Water
1/2 Cup Agave Nectar (You may sub Honey, Maple Syrup, or light brown Sugar)
1 large Navel Orange
1 Lemon
1 lime
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Allspice
Shake of Sea Salt

Grate zest from all citrus; get all the nice bright orange, yellow and green, (Stop before you get to the bitter white part.)

Juice lemon and lime. Peel orange thoroughly and rough chop the meat from that; set aside.

Bring water to a boil in a saucepan over medium high heat.

When water is boiling, add cranberries and return to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium and add citrus zest, orange, and juice.

Allow sauce to continue to boil, stirring occasionally until about 3/4 of the cranberries have popped.

Add cinnamon, nut get and salt, stir in thoroughly.

Remove from heat and transfer to a glass or ceramic bowl.

Allow to cool completely at room temperature.

Cover and refrigerate until serving time. Will last in the fridge for about a week.

And finally, in addition to whatever pies you dig, try this pumpkin flan for a very cool twist on the gourd of the day.

Pumpkin Flan

For the caramel:
3/4 Granulated White Sugar
1/3 Cup Maple Syrup
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

For the flan:
1 14 Ounce can Sweetened Condensed Milk
1 12 Ounce can Evaporated Milk
1 15 Ounce can Libby’s Pure Pumpkin (Don’t use anything that reads ‘Pie Filling’)
1/2 Cup Whole Milk Ricotta Cheese
4 Jumbo Eggs
1 Tahitian Vanilla Bean, (1 teaspoon pure extract is OK as a sub)
1 Tablespoon Maple Syrup
1 large Navel Orange, (for zest and 1 Tablespoon of juice)
1/2 teaspoon Cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fresh grated Nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon Allspice
Pinch of Sea Salt

You’ll need an 8” round cake pan for this, and it can’t be a springform. Alternatively, if you’ve got enough of ‘em, you can do this as individual servings in ramekins, but you’ll need to have your mis together to make sure you can get the caramel poured into them all and spread evenly. If you go the ramekin route, having them sitting in a bath of hot water will help a bunch toward that end.

Preheat the oven to 350° F and set a rack in the middle position.

Have your pan or ramekins ready to go, as noted above.

Zest the orange, taking care to only get the colored part, leaving the white pith intact.

In a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat, add the sugar, syrup, and 1/3 cup of very hot water. Stir to incorporate well.

When the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer. Allow the mix to cook, without stirring, until it’s golden brown and reading 230°F on a candy or instant read thermometer. Don’t leave the pan while this is cooking – It can go overboard quickly, so keep a sharp eye on things throughout the cooking process.

As soon as the caramel is done, pour it carefully into the cake pan or ramekins. Be careful, it’s molten sugar and will burn the snot out of you if you’re careless.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the two milks, the pumpkin, and the ricotta. Using a hand or stick mixer with a whisk attachment, beat the ingredients at low speed until the mix is smooth and uniform.

Add all other ingredients, and whisk on low to fully incorporate.

Make sure that your caramel is nice and hard, then use a spatula to transfer the batter from bowl to pan or ramekins.

Place the cake pan or ramekins inside a roasting pan, and carefully fill that with water until water level reaches roughly half way up your pan or ramekins.

Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, until the flan has set, but still has some jiggle to the middle when you gently wiggle the roasting pan. A tooth pick inserted into the flan should come out clean.

Remove flan from oven, and from the roasting pan, and transfer to a cooling rack.

Allow the flan to cool completely to room temperature, then cover the pan or ramekins tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours prior to serving.

When you’re ready to serve, run a knife around the edge of the pan or ramekins, and place a serving plate tight to whatever you’re transferring. Quickly but gently give the pan a flip and viola – You’ve got gorgeous pumpkin flan with a maple caramel ready to rock.

You can add whipped cream, if you like, but you won’t really need it.

Aromatic Bases – Humble Beginnings

We’ve just enjoyed our first snow of the season, one good enough to warrant plowing by the county and some cautious driving for a day or two. Nothing nails down the arrival of winter quite like that first storm. Our critters make it known, in no uncertain terms, that this means it’s time for some serious hunkerin’ down, and frankly, when the wind is ripping out of the north from the Fraser river valley at 30 knots with gusts on toward 50, I couldn’t agree more. That means it’s also time for serious, rib sticking comfort food, like soups, stews, casseroles, and such. Doing those dishes up right means we’ve got to pay special attention to the humble beginnings of such dishes – the aromatic bases.

Aromatic bases literally make the food world go round
Aromatic bases literally make the food world go round

So, what’s with the humble moniker, first off? Well, it’s an honest nod to the fact that what we’re going to employ in this role is rarely sexy stuff. The stars of this show are, in fact, the things that all too often languish in our kitchen. This is the stuff many of us buy at the market because it’s pretty and we have big ideas on shopping day, only to find, many days later, they’ve gone by the wayside – Carrots, celery, onion, peppers, garlic, ginger, fennel, leeks, turnips, parsnips, celeriac, and tomato, to name a good few. In that comfort food I mentioned, these lowly contributors will often play second fiddle, and may, in many iterations, be difficult to identify within a dish – Humble beginnings, indeed.

Yet without these hidden gems adding their je ne sais quoi to our winter fare, what we get is a pale reflection of the real thing. They’re called aromatic bases for a reason. In addition to key vegetables, aromatics may include herbs and spices, and occasionally a little protein as well. Gently sautéed or sweated in a little oil or stock, the magic is released – Our dishes gain the satisfying depth and breadth they demand. Literally every cuisine around the world employs some form of aromatic base, from here in the states to the farthest reaches of China. Some are more famous than others, some quite obscure, but no less worthy of exploration. Something as simple as a one veggie change in a standard mix can bring about entirely new flavors, and in many iterations, that’s exactly what has happened. Let’s have a look at a few of these.

Mirepoix - 50% onion, 25% each carrot and celery
Mirepoix – 50% onion, 25% each carrot and celery

The French Mirepoix is arguably the most well known aromatic mix out there – Technically, (and in keeping with classic French cooking’s fussy reputation), mirepoix is two parts onion to one part each celery and carrot, and the portions are weighed to assure an accurate blend – That’s more precision than you need or likely want at home, so eyeballing or volume measuring those proportions is just fine. So, whataya do with mirepoix? More like what can’t you do with it. First and foremost in my mind is making stock and broth – Without it, you’ve got bupkis, with it, you’ve got depth and breadth of flavor like nobody’s business. D’accord, it’s also a base for soups, sauces, and stews, a bed for roasting meats and poultry, a great salad blend, and the list goes on. If you’re a regular here, you know how often you see us use it. ‘Nuff said.

Spanish sofrito looking particularly fetching
Spanish sofrito looking particularly fetching

In Spain, the signature mix pays homage to gifts from the new world that arrived many centuries ago, namely tomatoes and chiles. Initially viewed with some suspicion, the locals eventually recognizing the error of their ways and adopted these gifts as the heart of their go-to aromatic base. Before that, especially up north in Catalonia, the signature mix was onion, leek, carrot and a touch of salt pork. Afterwards, tomato, green chile (Mild, but not sweet – Anaheims or mild Hatch are perfect), onion, and garlic, with a little olive oil and paprika became the thing – Sofrito, which still rules the roost. This kind of blend spread across the Spanish empire, and as a result, everything from the tip of South America through Mexico and the Caribbean employs some variation on the theme. From the Spanish dishes that blend indigenous cuisine with Moorish and new world influence, to Cuban picadillo, it’s everywhere you want to be.

Recaíto - A slice of Puerto Rican Heaven
Recaíto – A slice of Puerto Rican Heaven

My favorite variation on sofrito comes from Puerto Rico, where I was introduced to it as a kid. Recaíto is the name, and it looks absolutely nothing like the Spanish stuff – it’s fueled by Culantro, (eryngium foetidum), or foul thistle. That’s a cilantro cousin, but much more pungent – stronger in all the aspects that cause some folks to not like either herb. Combined with aji dulce, (a small local pepper that looks suspiciously like a scotch bonnet, but is sweet and mild), onions, garlic, and a little cubanelle chile for a touch of heat, you’ve got a green sauce made in heaven. That alone with good rice is absolutely delicious. It’s also great as a marinade for proteins, and as a base for, you guessed it, soups and stews. Recaíto is perfect stuff to stick in an ice cube tray and freeze – Instant inspiration at your finger tips.

Italian Soffritto - Don’t call it mirepoix!
Italian Soffritto – Don’t call it mirepoix!

Around the corner in Italy, the base of bases looks something like France’s, but naturally is different enough to brook argument over who came up with what first, (Don’t get me, or all them folk, started, OK?) It’s fundamentally the same as mirepoix, but with important twists – It’s called Battuto when it’s raw, and soffritto when cooked (I think the extra consonants are there to make sure you truly understand that this ain’t Spain). Onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and garlic, sautéed in olive oil. In keeping with Italian temperament, there are no recognized ratios, and if you ask, you’ll get a blank stare, a loaded shrug, and raised eyebrows – Translation – Do what you like, it’s your food. What to do with the raw blend? Make a big ol’ batch and freeze it in single use sized portions – Then you’ve got your base ready when you’re short on time and long on inspiration. Finely dice a little smoked ham and mash that together with your battuto – Toss that in a pan with olive oil as the start of an epic pasta sauce – Capiche? We can’t leave Italy without a nod to the third variant and coolest variant of their aromatic base concept, Odori. When I was in Italy many moons ago, shopping with my Sis who studied there, a trip to the market for vegetables included the question from the vendor, ‘vuoi qualche odore?’ Literally, do you want some smells? If you nodded, they’d toss a carrot, a stalk of celery, a little parsley and basil in your bag, gratis – That was just a little something to get things going once you got back home – Toss it in a pot with water and make whatever you like – It’s your food. How sweet is that? Grazie, mille grazie.

Portugal has heavenly stuff called Refogado – onion, garlic, chiles and tomato, though there are more than a few cooks there who would refute that, and point to onion, garlic, saffron, and smoked paprika as the true mix, (and truth be told, that’s my fave) – I’d say you’re hard pressed to lose going either way. This mix is amazing with seafood, which is no surprise, or course, but good with much more than just that.

Say Cajun and you want the Holy Trinity
Say Cajun and you want the Holy Trinity

Here in the States, we have one true base we can lay claim to, thanks to the Cajun folk – It’s called the Holy Trinity – onion, celery, and green pepper, and really, nothing else, although some folk do like to whip a little roux right in with that as it cooks, to kind of get a leg up on things, yeah? The usual ratio has a couple of camps – those who do equal measures of each, and those who portion like mirepoix, 50% onion, 25% pepper and celery. Whip that up, and jambalaya, gumbo, and anything else your heart desires is on tap.

How about some of the lesser known versions? Well, there’s suppengrün in Germany, which means soup greens and is perfect for same – It’s carrot, celery root, and leek, (and for the record, celery root is the root of the celery you buy in the store, and while related, it is not the same as celeriac). This stuff goes wonderfully with silky potato soup, or braised beef and cabbage.

There’s a version in Hungary that employs onion, cabbage, and paprika – I think that begs for sausage and potatoes, and I’m willing to bet nobody over there would argue much with that.

Although the cuisine of China is highly regionalized, one could land on scallion, ginger, and garlic for their more or less universal trinity. Heck, that combo with nothing more than good soy sauce is amazing in and of itself – From dipping sauce, to moisture for fried rice, to marinade for pork or chicken, you’re in like Flynn.

In India, garlic, ginger and onion would work. Just set your mind’s eye on that, and all sorts of things come to mind – From chick peas to chicken, that blend will rock.

Jamaica could be well represented by garlic, scallion, and thyme – Add that to lime juice and some hot chiles, and the sky’s the limit.

Most West African cuisines share chile, onion, and tomato as their big trio, and here again, what a great launching pad. Tofu, rice, veggies, chicken, beef – Yes to all of the above.

In Thailand, you’d be on the money with lemon grass, kafir lime, and galangal, for which ginger is a reasonable substitute. Marinate shrimp, chicken, or beef. Rice dishes, soups and stews.

Making your own aromatic base? Yes, you can add seasoning.
Making your own aromatic base? Yes, you can add seasoning.

Now, none of this veggie laden listing is meant to state in any way that This Is The Way It Must Be Done. Even with mirepoix, there’s poetic license. I’ll add two caveats to that – One, cut your veggies to the same size, whatever that is – That’ll assure even cooking, and Two – Season your base lightly with salt and pepper when you cook it – That’ll do much to bring those flavors to their fullest.

What it does mean is that you’ve now got a solid base from a whole bunch of cuisines to springboard from. While there are herbs here and there in the stuff above, know this – Just as every Italian Momma makes the best sauce, period, every one of them does it differently, and so should you. Use what you like, it’s your food. Not sure if something goes with that combo? Build a tiny little sample and try it – If you like it, go wild.

I just posted a bunch of pics of split pea soup the way we do it, which includes lemon zest and juice – A bunch of people asked, “Lemon, with split pea soup?” The answer is yup, we love it – That lemon brings a brightness to what can be a heavy soup, elevates the herbs we use, and helps cut the fat of the ham a bit too – If that sounds good to you, try it. If you don’t like lemon, try lime, orange, grapefruit, whatever floats your boat. And for the record, the aromatic base for that is shallot, garlic, celery, and carrot, and it rocks.

 

Spare Ribs with a Citrus Fennel Glaze

We did up some ribs for dinner the other night, in honor of our middle son and his partner coming over for dinner. As we are want to do, we posted some pics all over social media, and as such, have had a bunch of requests for the recipe, so here goes – Spare Ribs with a Citrus Fennel Glaze.

Citrus Fennel Glazed Spare Ribs
Citrus Fennel Glazed Spare Ribs

The sauce is the star here, and for good reason. It’s a grade A example of the organic way M and I arrive at a dish, based largely on what we’ve got on hand, and often initiated by a single thing – In this case, a left over blood orange that had given up it’s zest for an earlier meal with our youngest kid.

Initially, we were leaning toward a Chinese style rub, but James is allergic to sesame, so we went off on a tangent. M found that blood orange and wondered aloud if we couldn’t do something with that. A short brainstorming session yielded what you see herein. This sauce could be used on a lot of things, from chicken or beef, to Brussels sprouts or carrots.

While this might seem like alchemy, I assure you, it’s not. Often, when we’re brainstorming things, I’ll whip out our copy of The Flavor Bible, a book that you aughta have in your kitchen, if you don’t already. You’ll find a wealth of parings and affinities therein that truly can and will spark your imagination and creativity.

And I can’t stress enough to be bold in endeavors like this – If you like stuff, and you think that stuff might go well together, then try it. If you’re at all nervous about committing to a full blown recipe, then cut off a little piece of this and a little piece of that,  pop them your mouth, and see what you think. If it’s good, go with it. If it’s not, search elsewhere.  That, in a nutshell, is how you build your own ideas into culinary reality.

We used a rack of spare ribs, but you can do any cut of rib you like, (Baby Back, St. Louis, Rib Tips, County Style, or beef ribs.)

Preheat oven to 250° F and set a rack in the middle slot.

Season ribs with sea salt and fresh ground pepper, (we use our go to seasoning salt for pretty much everything).

Wrap the ribs tightly in aluminum foil, fat side up and dull side of the foil facing out.

Set the package on a baking sheet, or the bottom of a broiler pan, and cook low and slow for about 2 hours, until the rib meat is very tender.

Citrus Fennel glaze is great for a bunch of dishes
Citrus Fennel glaze is great for a bunch of dishes

Citrus-Fennel Glaze

Juice from one fat and happy blood orange.
1/4 Cup Orange Marmalade
1/3 Cup chopped fresh Fennel bulb
2 small cloves Garlic
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco chile flake, (Use any chile variety you like here)
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Teaspoon Arrowroot.

Remove ribs from oven, set a rack on a high slot, and increase temperature to 375° F.

In a sauté pan over medium heat, melt butter, then add fennel and sauté for a couple minutes until it has notably softened.

Add garlic and sauté another minute until raw garlic smell dissipates.

Reduce heat to medium low.

Add orange juice, marmalade, and chile flake, stir well to incorporate.

Cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes, until the sauce is quite liquid, (that’d be the marmalade relaxing a bit.)

Add half the arrow root and stir to incorporate. Allow the sauce to cook for another minute or so. Sauce will thicken slightly – Add the rest of the arrow root if you want things a bit thicker.

Unwrap the ribs, and flip them meat side up onto the pan. Baste or pour sauce liberally onto the ribs in an even layer.

Uncover your ribs and flip them meaty side up for glazing
Uncover your ribs and flip them meaty side up for glazing

Return the ribs to the oven on the high rack, and cook for about 10 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and starting to caramelize.

Beautiful salad!
Beautiful salad!

We served ours with an gratin potatoes, a lovely green salad, and fresh, crusty bread. They were falling off the bone tender, and the sauce was a perfect foil to the richness of the meat.

Biscuits To Die For

Greg Atkinson is a great guy, and he makes fantastic biscuits – He also happens to be a real deal big time Chef. From the Friday Harbor House on San Juan island, to Canlis in Seattle, and now Restaurant Marché on Bainbridge, (his current masterpiece), Greg has been seminal to the development of Pacific Northwest cuisine as a genuine force to be reckoned with. He’s won a James Beard M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing award, and authored a handful of excellent northwest cookbooks. And, he posts pictures of those lovely little things pretty much every week, which instantly makes you crave biscuits – Biscuits to die for.

The incomparable Greg Atkinson
The incomparable Greg Atkinson

When we say ‘Biscuit,’ we really do have to define what we’re talking about, because it’s a broad definition indeed – Pilot bread is a biscuit, as is a saltine cracker, actually – And those are a far cry from the golden, flaky little gems that just got pulled outta my oven. The version I make owe their origin story to tthe American south, (as do rolled or beaten biscuits). These days, you can find them everywhere, as it should be.

This form of biscuit is essentially a quick bread, a combination of flour, leavening, milk, fat, and a little salt. Of course, every cook has their preferences for most of those constituents – Milk or buttermilk, butter or lard, soft southern flour, or harder northern varieties – Fact is, they’ll all make great biscuits if you handle things right.

So, what is it we’re after then, if we’re looking to make a great southern style biscuit? The terms that get bandied about most are tender and flaky, but the fact is, those two words really mean quite different things. Down South, folks prefer their biscuits tender, and that means they’re made from a fairly wet dough, what’s often called a drop biscuit – That produces a fairly dense crumb, quite like a muffin. Flaky, on the other hand, implies defined layers in the finished product, and while they’re still quite light when done right, they’re definitely a bit chewier than their southern cousins – And generally, that’s how northern folks, (where I’m from), like ’em – This is the dough Greg uses, and gave me the insight into, and is what I make now – One day last spring, he posted a bare bones recipe, which is just what I like. I’ve been working on this for about 6 months, getting the process and ingredients just right – I can reproduce this pretty much anywhere, which means you can too.

Now, I’ve no illusions that what I’m about to share is totally unique, ’cause it’s not. For one thing, it’s Greg’s recipe, tweaked a little, which is pretty much how all recipes are passed along. It’s the process steps he shared and I’ve adopted that are the real trick to the game. Greg’s offering was, in fact, slightly cryptic. He mentions shortening and butter in the very brief narrative, but then doesn’t list shortening in the ingredients. He said that the dough is ‘never really mixed or kneaded in the conventional sense,’ and nothing else about working it. He baked in a ‘very hot oven,’ – Now, I don’t think he was being purposefully difficult – It was literally a couple of pictures and a paragraph he’d posted in response to somebody who’d pestered him for a recipe. While it took a few months to figure things out, it was enough for me to work with.

This version of biscuit dough isn’t a short dough, though many folks think that it is – Short, in the baking context, refers to a high ratio of fat to flour, as well as the presence of sugar. While biscuits are rich, they’re not particularly fatty, and there’s no sugar at all in the mix, (at least not in my recipe) – The recipe I’ll share has 12 ounces of fat to 5 cups of flour, or slightly under a 1:4 ratio – Compare that to shortbread, where the fat to flour ratio is 1:2, and you get the picture.

So, what is the magic then? The best way I can describe the overarching principle is this – It’s like pie crust, which means that, the more you fuck with the dough, the less you succeed. Now, that’s a simple enough statement, but it doesn’t really do much towards explaining the details of what you should and shouldn’t do. There is a series of seemingly minor but vital steps to take, and as with all doughs, batters, etc, how you handle them is absolutely as critical to success as the stuff they’re made of.

What we’ve got is fat, (butter and oil), suspended in flour and liquid, (milk). The first challenge a biscuit maker faces is how to get the butter well distributed through the flour-milk paste. The primary enemy here is heat, and what do most cooks do to distribute butter? Cut it into cubes and then work it by hand into the infamous ‘Pea sized’ thing we read in all the cook books – Trouble is, our hands melt the butter and warm the flour, and that’s pretty much counter-productive. The way to counteract this is to have everything except the oil as cold as possible, and to keep your paws, for the most part, out of the mix. More on that shortly.

Another old saw about the formation of doughs worth visiting is the supposition that what we’re forming is tiny pockets of flour, coated with fat, but the fact is that has it absolutely ass backwards – What really happens is that is that the flour/liquid slurry coats tiny little pockets of fat – Now, think about that for a sec, and when you do, a light comes on, ’cause that makes a hell of a lot more sense. While the degree of mixing will always vary, the fact that the flour/liquid mix encapsulates the fat helps us understand why that whole business with the butter is a great idea – That and the fact that it just plain works.

Now, for the final bit of science, with an apology to all of you who aren’t food science geeks, (but it’s actually important). Harken back to where we discussed the two primary types of American biscuits, the tender and the flaky – Turns out that the key to these is predominantly determined by… (Wait for it…), how we handle the dough. The former, the southern biscuit, requires enough manipulation to construct layers of the flour/liquid slurry and fat, AKA, working that dough enough for gluten to develop to a significant degree, while the latter, the flaky northern version, absolutely demands minimal handling in order to keep gluten from developing at all – And that’s saying a mouthful. In other words, to build these biscuits we’re talking about here, you really cannot do anything more than reasonably combine the ingredients, period – And fact is, that is exactly what Greg was talking about when he wrote that these biscuits are, ‘never really mixed or kneaded in the conventional sense,’ AKA, full circle, eh?

So on to the finale – marching orders. As always, you reap what you sew, so use ingredients as fresh and local as you can – In something this simple, ingredient quality is everything, and subpar or old stuff truly won’t taste very good – One more word to the wise, as we’ve covered here before, leaving agents like yeast, baking soda or powder do have expiration dates, and old stuff will not work well, if at all, so check yours and get fresh before you get started.

Biscuits to die for - Its all in the proper prep
Biscuits to die for – Its all in the proper prep

Genuinely Flaky Biscuits

5 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Cups Whole Milk
6 Ounces Butter
6 Ounces Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

At least a day before you build, pop a pound of butter into the freezer and leave it there – It can be your go-to stash for baking.

Add flour, baking powder, and salt to a mixing bowl and whisk to incorporate thoroughly.

Put the bowl and contents into the freezer for at least an hour prior to mixing, and longer if you like – Overnight is fine.

When you’re ready to mix, pull a stick of frozen butter and use the medium shred on a box grater to process 6 ounces. Toss the butter into the mixing bowl with your dry ingredients and return it to the freezer for 15 minutes after grating.

Preheat your oven to 450° F.

Grab something nice and thick and heavy to bake in or on – I use a pizza stone, but a cast iron pan works just fine too.

Pre-measure 6 ounces of avocado oil and set aside at your prep area.

Pull your chilled bowl, and add the milk and oil to the other ingredients.

Now, when it’s mixing time, that means, in this instance, absolutely minimal – Think of something like Belgian waffles, where you need to fold beaten egg whites into the rest of the batter – You work carefully, delicately, so that you don’t smoosh all the air out of those whites you’ve just worked so hard to beat – That’s the concept here – Carefully and slowly fold everything with a wooden spoon or the side of a spatula, just enough to reasonably incorporate all the ingredients, and no more.

Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a cutting board, and gently pat it into a round, about 1″ thick.

Use a glass, can, whatever works for you that will let you cut biscuit rounds out of the block.

Place biscuits on your stone/pan – Ideally, you’d like about a half inch or so between each.

When you get to the scraps of your dough, just gently hand form the last biscuit or two.

Bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Devour with abandon.

Five Spice is good for way more than just Chinese cooking.

Chinese five spice powder – Got it in your spice cabinet? Odds are good that you do, but they’re also good that you haven’t used it for anything other than that one Chinese recipe you tried way back when and bought the stuff for – Am I right or am I right? I’m here today to fix that, and to tell you why you should -Five Spice is good for way more than just Chinese cooking.

Classic Five Spice, although more is OK
Classic Five Spice, although more is OK

So, what exactly is five spice? That depends, frankly, on where in China you ask the question. This blend is relatively ubiquitous in Chinese cooking, and culinary regions from all points on the compass points lay claim to its origin. There is, however, some general agreement about the intention of that ancient founder – To provide the culinary equivalent of Unified Field Theory – one powder to rule them all – Five spice touches on sweet, sour, bitter, heat, and salty – A blend for all things, if you will.

Now, that said, five spice is as unique as any other legendary thing. What that means is that every home cook, restaurant chef, and spice purveyor has their tried and true personal blend, and each and every one of those is the best, no questions asked. Truth be told, they’re all correct, because when you make it yours, its exactly what you want it to be – That’s the beauty of discovery and refinement. The end result of today’s exercise should be just that for y’all.

The big question, of course, is this – What are the Five Spices? Turns out, the title is a bit misleading. Take a look at the ingredients on the commercial stuff out there and you’ll find anywhere between five and ten ingredients – Interesting, yeah? That’s because ‘Five Spice’ speaks to the five flavors the blend contains – Sweet, sour, bitter, heat, and salty – Cover those, and the number of ingredients used to achieve it is open for interpretation.

The generally recognized standard however, is star anise, clove, Chinese cinnamon (Cassia), Szechuan pepper, and fennel seed, but again, you might also find regular cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, licorice, anise, turmeric, black pepper, sea salt, and mandarin orange peel as well. There’s nothing wrong with all that, frankly, though as with all things in discovery, it’s best to go to the classic roots first, and then branch out to make it yours.

For us here in the U.S., the blend has an exotic feel to it that can be a real treat for breaking up the ol’ routine. The combination of what Chinese culinary tradition refers to as hot (cinnamon and Szechuan pepper), and cold (fennel and clove), tastes does a really cool double duty with meats, especially fatty stuff – It highlights richness as it cuts through the fat – A neat trick, that.

If you have Asian grocers in your area, check them out and see if they make their own blends – If not, they’ll likely have a favorite that they sell – Diving into those is like touring the regions and towns folks come from – You’ll get a different swing on things from each one.

So, what exactly would you use this stuff on when you whip it out? The quick answer is that five spice is tailor made for proteins – Beef, pork, and poultry will all shine, (and frankly, you can’t make great char sui pork without it), as will tofu, and beans. For dang near anything you’re going to grill, barbecue, or smoke, it makes a fantastic rub. Five spice does great in flour, starch, or bread crumb coatings for fried foods, too. And frankly, there’s nothing in there that wouldn’t go great with savory eggs and veggies. And believe it or not, it’s great for baking too – Add it to a savory scone, pancake, or waffle recipe, for instance.

A note of caution for using five spice on things other than fatty meats – The blend can overpower a recipe really quickly, so a little bit goes a long way. The blend does best when it has some time to work, so employing it in marinades and rubs works best.

The gist of all this is that while five spice is a necessity for many Chinese dishes, it’s great to think outside the box and try it with other stuff as well – It’s easy enough to add a dab to a sample of something you’re cooking – A great way to expand your horizons. This is a blend that, while fundamentally simple, belies that label with a truly fascinating and complex palette of flavors.

Here’s a basic recipe to get you started – Again, use it as a springboard to tailor your own custom blend. As with all herbs and spices, freshness and quality are critical. Harkening back to that bottle you’ve got in your cabinet, chances are good it’s old, and maybe not the best stuff you could find, right? So, go to a known, high quality purveyor like World Spice, Penzey’s, or Penderey’s and buy your stuff there – They really truly don’t cost more than the junk in most stores, and the quality is far superior. Finally, it’s always a good idea to buy whole spices when available as well – They’ll stay fresher longer.

House made Five Spice
House made Five Spice

Classic 5 Spice Blend

1 Tablespoon whole Szechuan Peppercorns
3 whole Star Anise
1 stick Cassia Bark (AKA Chinese Cinnamon)
2 teaspoons whole Cloves
2 teaspoons whole Fennel Seed

Allow a dry, cast iron skillet to heat through over medium heat.

Add Szechuan pepper, star anise, cloves, and fennel seed to the pan. Toast the spices until they’re notably fragrant, about 3 to 5 minutes. Keep the spices moving constantly to avoid scorching.

Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Add the toasted spices and cassia to a spice grinder, blender, mortar and pestle, or whatever you use to grind spices. Pulse the blend to a uniform rough powder.

Store in a clean glass container with an air tight lid – Keep in mind that all spices like a cool, dark, dry environment for storage. Spices are good for about 6 months, properly stored.

 

Here’s a couple of rubs to get you started.

5 Spice Java Dry Rub

2 teaspoons 5 Spice Powder
1 teaspoon fresh ground Coffee
1 teaspoon Dark Brown Sugar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

 

5 Spice Wet Rub

1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil
Juice & Zest from 1 small Lemon
1 Tablespoon 5 Spice
1 teaspoon Sea Salt